Despite having a PhD in molecular virology and microbiology, Collin Diedrich’s dyslexia caused him to doubt his intelligence in a world where “smartness” is revered. But having this learning disability has helped him to think critically and made him more driven in his career. His advice to students with dyslexia? Get the support you need. There’s plenty out there.
We love and revere intelligence as one of the greatest of virtues. Its importance is ingrained in us even before we can talk. Think of parents boasting about their children figure out that cubes fit into square shaped holes and spheres into circles. This mentality is carried with us as we move through elementary school (“You read so well, you’re so smart!”), middle school (“You solved that algebra equation, you’re so smart!”), high school (“You’re in advanced placement classes, you’re so smart!”), all through the rest of our lives. “Smart” is among the highest of praise; we admire, respect, and love the smart.
But what happens when a child takes a little longer to figure out the cube won’t fit into the circle hole or can’t remember small facts that his or her peers know? If we call ‘Child A’ intelligent for doing XYZ, and ‘Child B’ takes longer to do those same tasks, does that mean Child B is not smart? Or worse, are they stupid? Most people would say “Of course Child B is not stupid, it just takes them longer, they will grow out of it.” What happens when Child B doesn’t grow out of it and never catches up?
Too often, the “she’ll catch up” and “he’ll outgrow it” become frustrated dismissals that they are simply and irrevocably unintelligent. These children internalize this message: “I’m dumb. I’m stupid.” With the world’s glorification of intelligence, how can we expect these children to develop self-worth? How can they find happiness, succeed or excel with this repeated message they lack one of our greatest virtues?
I was Child B, and truth be told, I am Adult B. I fail intelligence tests almost every day of my life. My reading and learning disorders put a wall between me and traditional intelligence. How can I be intelligent if: I read between a 6th and 9th grade level, processing language in real time can be excruciating, I have a hard time remembering general facts, I don’t read books for pleasure, and I learned to nod in agreement and change the subject to ‘appear intelligent’ in conversation?
Despite my learning disabilities, I received a PhD in molecular virology and microbiology. Despite my poor reading ability, I was able to complete a decade old dream of working as a research scientist for almost three years at the University of Cape Town examining how HIV manipulates immunological responses to tuberculosis. Despite the isolation associated with having learning disabilities I’m in a second post-doctoral fellowship at University of Pittsburgh. Despite feeling stupid when I walk down the street, I’m on way to becoming an expert in HIV/TB co-infection immunology.
My learning disabilities have taught me how to think critically, something that is essential in research. My learning disabilities gave me a drive to overcome the tremendous failures that accompany my research because experimental failures are the foundation of scientific progress. My learning disabilities taught me how to feel confused, which almost every PhD on the planet feels during their training. This feeling exacerbates as you become more of an expert in your field and you realise that scientific knowledge only scratches the surface of how the world works. Accepting our limitations in knowledge is integral in scientific expertise; a feeling students with learning disabilities know all too well.
The only thing students with learning disabilities need is support. To all those scientists, educators, parents, and science-enthusiasts the right support is empathy. It’s realizing that some students might need help in certain areas. It’s treating them as equals that might need a little extra time to work through a problem. When I grew up and moved through academia with learning disabilities, I felt alone. That isolation makes everything harder.
Today, there is no need to feel alone. There are organizations like International Dyslexia Association, Learning Disability Association of America, National Center for Learning Disabilities, and Understood that provide guidance to students with learning disabilities, their caretakers and educators. There are also a number of assistive technologies (Kurzweil Education, Microsoft’s Read Aloud, Echo Pen, etc) that bridge the gap between what was once impossible to what is possible. Students with learning disabilities no longer have to feel alone. We should push students with learning disabilities that love science and engineering into STEM careers. Take it from me, you don’t have to be able to read well to perform great and interesting research!
October is Dyslexia Awareness Month. It is a time to recognise that people with dyslexia and other learning disabilities are not stupid, they just think differently. I’m biased, but I believe these different thinkers are well-positioned to becoming scientists and engineers. It’s time we redefine smart!
Collin Diedrich is a postdoctoral research fellow in HIV/TB co-infection immunology at the University of Pittsburgh, US, and a professional speaker and advocate for students with learning disabilities. Share your learning disability stories with him: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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